On 14 September 2017 a formal ceremony took place to install the final four rail sleeper clips on Crossrail. As reported by Crossrail themselves, this marked completion of the installation of all the track that Crossrail Ltd was directly responsible for.
It would have been wrong not to mark this completion with some kind of event. It is traditional to have some kind of ceremony when trackwork is completed on a new railway line. The formal event itself was decidedly underwhelming, what was more interesting was the gradual realisation that the construction of Crossrail is almost complete.
When one talks of ceremoniously completing the track, one may well think of the railways of the east and west coasts of America being connected. This is seen as a historical event in the same category as the Russian and American forces meeting up at Elbe towards the end of WW2. Seeing four screws inserted to install the final clips on the eastbound Crossrail track didn’t quite generate the same level of excitement.
Indeed screwing the clips in place was hardly a task vital for the progression of the project. The line had already seen plenty of works trains going up and down at low speed. Because the rails still have to be ‘stressed’, and that cannot be done until the temperature in the tunnels reaches a steady state, there were even small gaps in the rail at various locations. If works trains can safely run over these small fish-plated gaps then they can safely run at low speed over a track which has four rail clamps not screwed down.
The Crossrail event was, unavoidably, stage-managed. Not only did it happen at a civilised hour during the working week, it also happened at probably one of the most conveniently accessible locations within the Crossrail tunnels at Whitechapel. Less cynically, the always effervescent Crossrail Chairman, Terry Morgan, pointed out in a video interview that Whitechapel is particularly appropriate because “Whitechapel has been a huge challenge for us over the years and it now looks like a station”.
We cynically suggested to senior Crossrail staff that the screws might already have been put in place by machine and unscrewed especially for this purpose, but we were assured that these were genuinely the last clips to be installed. However, when asked, it was confirmed that someone with a bit more experience would be along later with a calibrated torque wrench.
There were no great ceremonies and no speeches. The media were there but not in force. The Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, was there offering his appreciation for the work done to anyone dressed in Crossrail orange workwear who appeared to be hanging around for the occasion without any kind of purposeful intention. Thus it was that both LR’s editor and the author of this article were thanked profusely by the Secretary of State for the work they did building Crossrail, and the beaming smiles offered in return appeared to be interpreted as appreciation for the sentiments made.
Whatever the official reason for the trip to Whitechapel, for visitors it was probably more interesting to see the final completed Crossrail station tunnel – though fitting-out remains to be done.
Presentation is everything
One can argue that the media event was at least in part about impressing the Secretary of State for Transport – that it was more about Crossrail 2 than Crossrail 1. It was certainly an opportunity to remind the Secretary of State how well the construction was going and, by holding the ceremony in the mighty cavern of Whitechapel eastbound platform, emphasise the great potential of Crossrail 2 to help alleviate London’s transport problems. Certainly, the BBC’s reporting suggested this was really about the need to get on with Crossrail 2, with a defensive Chris Grayling seemingly keener to promote the cause of HS2.
Alternatively, one can take the view that the ceremony helped get across the message that Crossrail Ltd is entering its final stage of construction, with most work close to completion and the start of testing and handover about to begin. It is hard to imagine that by early July 2018 the work at Crossrail will largely be done and that relatively few people will remain on the payroll.
Nearly 90% complete… maybe
In an upbeat video Andrew Wolstenholme, Crossrail’s Chief Executive, claims the work is “approaching 90% complete” (and remember, as far as we are aware, that is specific Crossrail work). He also talks of having great confidence that the work will complete on time in December 2018 and “within the funding envelope”. In the BBC interview, referenced earlier, Val Shawcross, the Deputy Mayor for Transport, spoke of a slight concern that Network Rail would not finish “five stations in the West of London” on time for the full opening to Reading but added that this would not delay the introduction of the service and would only lead to the stations being not quite complete.
Confusingly, A more recent paper for the Programme and Investments Committee suggests that progress is 87% complete. It is possible that both figures are accurate with them measuring slightly different things. Alternatively, the “approaching 90% complete” figure involves some fairly liberal rounding of values.
Nuffin’ to do wiv us, gov
There is, seemingly, a contradiction between suggesting work on Crossrail is largely complete and the apparent amount of work which remains to be completed for opening of the main section in December 2018. One possible explanation for this is that it is down to demarcation.
In the early days of Crossrail there was little attempt to differentiate between the construction of Crossrail and its operation. Apart from anything else, it would have unnecessarily confused the public and the politicians. Anyway, it wasn’t important then. When it came to showing a public face, Crossrail took on board all aspects of the project. When the Crossrail route was extended to Reading, the Crossrail website was comprehensively updated to reflect this fact even though the matter was of very little importance to the construction company building the new line.
In contrast to the Reading announcement, the Crossrail website has done little to acknowledge the fact that it was recently announced that Crossrail (or rather the ‘Elizabeth line’) would serve Terminal 5. The website had an absolutely minimal update with the two of the three main maps still out-of-date, a cursory press announcement, an inaccurate home page and no mention of the decision to serve Terminal 5 in its latest Quarterly Update – either on the relevant webpage or Crossrail’s Chief Executive’s associated video. This is easy to explain: Crossrail Ltd is now only focused on things directly in its remit. To Crossrail, extending the Elizabeth line to Terminal 5 is an irrelevance.
So, we may have the situation where Crossrail’s “approaching 90% completion” figure refers just to works that Crossrail Ltd is responsible for. In contrast, TfL Rail may be looking at a bigger picture and taking into account that more work, such as operational trials, needs to be done. TfL Rail also increasingly seems to be the overseeing mind of the overall project, with Crossrail Ltd now concentrating on the engineering aspects.
What’s in a name?
A consequence of the decision to name the completed line ‘the Elizabeth line’ was that, for the first time, people had to think about whether they were referring to ‘Crossrail’ (the construction company) or ‘the Elizabeth line’ (the line itself).
Around the same time, another player was starting to portray their own identity. This was TfL Rail, a TfL subsidiary which is the management company responsible for specifying the service that will be run. They will also ultimately be responsible for running that service. Lurking in the background, but now becoming important nevertheless, is MTR Crossrail – the service management company which will actually run the Elizabeth line on a day-to-day basis. MTR Crossrail is already running the TfL Rail service between Shenfield and Liverpool St.
Just to add to the complexity, the main contractor for the surface works is Network Rail. Here we are in a bit of a strange situation, because Network Rail is subcontracted by Crossrail to deliver the specified work at an agreed fixed price and in an manner consistent with Network Rail standards. The nature of the relationship with Network Rail is also slightly different from other Crossrail subcontactors in that Network Rail handle their own press releases and community engagement. This makes it appear as if the work is nothing to do with Crossrail Ltd – and to a large extent it isn’t.
A further consequence of Crossrail naturally focusing on their own work is that no word is made of imminent completion of trackwork beyond the area that Crossrail is responsible for. In fact, if you go less than a couple of miles to the east of Whitechapel, far more interesting and significant track work is taking place as Network Rail is working hard to join the track at Pudding Mill Lane portal with the National Rail Network. This should be completed very shortly and is a prerequisite for the testing phase, as it will enable a train maintained at Ilford depot to access the tunnels – and without a train you cannot test a lot of the equipment there.
The arrangement at Pudding Mill Lane will see the portal leading down to the Elizabeth line flanked by the up and down ‘electric’ lines to Liverpool Street. Thus, to commission the portal it is necessary to re-route the busy up line into Liverpool St so that it lies between the portal and Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, which has been relocated well to the south.
A live wire
The current in the first live section of overhead line will be switched on within a couple of months. It is believed that by 31st October both eastern branches will be live all the way from Stepney Junction.
After the initial switching on, we expect to see a delay in switching on the remainder of the live overhead wire or rigid contact rail. Switching on means that extra precautions have to be introduced when working on any station construction affected – which slows down construction progress. Even the rebuilding of Custom House DLR has been affected by the first stage of going live. As always, Crossrail is as much about getting the logistics right as it is about the construction itself. We expect to see the remainder of Crossrail go live in February 2018 when the rest of the fixed contact bar in the tunnels will be energised.
With electrification wires present at Abbey Wood, there is a real feeling that the railway is complete even if the station has a few more weeks of work to go. Around Prince Regent and Custom House there is frenzied activity as a multitude of orange-clad workers finish off the electrification work.
Railway construction companies have learnt to keep the duration of time between the copper catenary wire going up and the wire going live as short as possible to avoid delays caused by the theft of copper wire. One consequence is a short sustained period of intense activity and that activity has been very apparent on Crossrail in the last month.
So what is left for Crossrail Ltd to do?
Judging by the upbeat mood and comments it would certainly seem to be the case that there is not that much left to be done by Crossrail Ltd. The work broadly falls into five categories. These are:
- complete the fit out in the tunnels
- test systems integration
- complete the stations Crossrail are responsible for
- complete the depot at Old Oak Common
- construct a maintenance depot at Plumstead
We will look at each of these in turn.
Complete the fit out
We are told that fit-out in the tunnels is pretty much complete between Abbey Wood and Canary Wharf. The fact that so much has already been done means that the methodology for fitting out is well established and it is now a case of continuing the good work all the way to the Royal Oak portal at the Paddington end. The Platform Edge Doors (PEDs) are starting to come into their own now as they provide a barrier between the track and the work still going on in the stations.
The main logistical problem with fit-out will be to integrate this with the testing of trains in the tunnels. The works trains will need to leave Plumstead in the morning prior to commencing work on the parts of the tunnels that still need fitting out. Testing of Class 345 trains based at Abbey Wood can then commence in the tunnel and take place during the day and then the Class 345 trains need to be parked up at Abbey Wood to enable the works trains to return to their base at Plumstead to be maintained and stocked up for the next day’s work.
Testing systems integration
The tunnels are very complex and they contain signalling, power, drainage, communications, air extraction equipment and a host of other things. At stations it gets even more complicated. All this has to be thoroughly tested by Crossrail and approved ready for handover to TfL Rail in early July 2018. Clearly, testing cannot commence in a particular stretch of tunnel until fit-out is complete. Platform Edge Doors will be amongst the last things to be tested because, as explained above, these are needed to separate activity in the stations from the systems testing.
The plan is to begin testing with a Class 345 train in November. With the power live it ought to be possible for it to arrive under its own power at Abbey Wood ready to commence testing, but the suggestion is that it will be loco-hauled (and propelled) to Abbey Wood from Ilford. Tests can then commence as far as Canary Wharf. Initially, this will involve a single train at very slow speed. As testing progresses up to six trains may be in the tunnel at one time – three in each direction.
Even at this stage, the task ceases to be solely an in-house Crossrail activity as the train will be driven by a driver from MTR Crossrail under directions from Crossrail staff. Furthermore, it seems, judging by their introduction on TfL Rail, that TfL Rail has largely taken responsibility for the trains. So we can expect to see integration tests as a joint activity between Crossrail Ltd, TfL Rail and MTR Crossrail.
Complete the stations Crossrail are responsible for
All appears to be going well with station construction in the central area. Crossrail Ltd is responsible for the 10 stations between Paddington and Abbey Wood (inclusive). Crossrail is reporting that many of the escalators are already in place in these stations and that, in some of them, the decorative features are now being installed. Work is done by contractors and they are due to finish in the summer of 2018 so that the stations can be handed over to TfL Rail and MTR Crossrail staff in early July.
Canary Wharf station has been largely complete for some time as it was built by a private contractor in lieu of a £500m payment towards the cost of Crossrail. Private enterprise was anxious to finish it as soon as possible to enable a development above the station to open at the earliest opportunity.
Elsewhere, Abbey Wood is due to open in October 2017, with only the Elizabeth line platforms not accessible to station users.
Complete the depot at Old Oak Common
It is easy to overlook depots but they are vital to any railway. The Elizabeth line depot at Old Oak Common will be a completely new one and Crossrail are responsible for building it. This needs to be operational by May 2018 when it is planned that six 9-car Class 345 trains will take over the Heathrow Connect service and replace the existing 2tph service with a train every 15 minutes between Terminal 4 and Paddington.
In fact, the first section of Old Oak Depot is planned to be brought into use at the end of November 2017. Prior to that, from the end of October, it is expected that one of the Elizabeth line sidings at Maidenhead will be used to store one of the first 9-car Class 345 trains.
Whilst a delay to completing stage 2 (operation of Terminal 4 – Paddington High-Level services) caused by delays finishing the depot would not be a disaster, it would certainly raise concerns within TfL Rail. They have been very open about the need to test the ETCS signalling track-train interface that will be used on this section of the Elizabeth line.
Even if ETCS is delayed on the Great Western Main Line, it will be vital that the trains work with this signalling as it will be the only option available for Class 345 trains when in the Heathrow tunnel. To test the trains and the signalling interface in the Heathrow tunnel, the trains need access to a functioning depot – hence the requirement for Old Oak depot to be partially operational in November.
Construct a maintenance depot at Plumstead
The construction of a new maintenance depot at Plumstead is probably the last big job that Crossrail needed to start. As the land has been in use as works site for construction it was not possible for work to commence on this until the end of August 2017. It is due to be completed by the end of August 2018.
Disappearing into oblivion
The end of Crossrail will not come with a bang, but a whimper. As more major tasks come to an end it will be the nitty-gritty of handover and snagging lists that will consume the time. The large numbers of people who worked on the project will continue to move elsewhere – possibly to HS2, Crossrail 2 development, Thames Tideway Tunnel or even to TfL Rail. The familiar Crossrail logos will start to disappear, the Crossrail website will have less to report and, no doubt, TfL will start to build up its own publicity machine. MTR Crossrail will work unobtrusively preparing for the launches of the various stages of the future Elizabeth line.
As Crossrail starts to wind down and TfL Rail starts to ramp up, we will also see new players enter the scene to finish off the work. The DLR has been working for the past few months getting Custom House DLR station fit for purpose as an interchange to the Elizabeth line.
Local authorities are already making plans to spruce up the areas around the Elizabeth line stations. Camden seems set to introduce its planned pedestrian-friendly changes to Tottenham Court Road once traffic restrictions due to Crossrail are removed. The Mayor and London Buses are keen for the opening of the Elizabeth line to coincide with a full closure of Oxford Street to traffic.
Crossrail construction is just part of the work necessary to create the Elizabeth line – but it is an enormous part. It won’t be long before it will be a case of ‘job done’ for Crossrail and for others to take over. With that in mind we hope to look shortly at the task TfL Rail now has as they, and MTR Crossrail, ramp up and get more involved with getting the Elizabeth line ready for passengers.